Options for limited irrigation

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Feb 7, 2005
by WLJ
Drought, declining water tables, and legal issues are limiting the amount of irrigation water available. University of Nebraska-Lincoln forage specialist, Bruce Anderson producers who don't have enough water to grow a good grain crop, may be able to rely on forages.
Anderson realizes that many irrigated acres won't receive enough water this summer to grow a grain or root crop. He says sometimes producers can combine water allocated for several fields onto one field to get a crop, but that still leaves the other acres with little or no water at all.
Forage crops also need water for high production, but, unlike most annual crops, Anderson says at least some useful yield can be gathered when total water available is very low.
“So what are your options,” Anderson asked. “Do you expect these water limits to continue for several more years? If so, a perennial forage would eliminate the cost and time of establishing a new crop each year.”
Anderson suggested that switchgrass is a good choice for a new crop because it is less expensive to plant. He also said, switchgrass’ primary water needs occur in early summer when water is available, and it can be managed successfully for hay or pasture. Other good warm-season grass options include big or sand bluestem and indiangrass.
Anderson said these options are especially good for grazing. Some of the wheatgrasses and bromegrasses as well as alfalfa can work with limited irrigation, but he says these cool-season plants respond best to water applied during spring.
For some irrigators water won't become available until after the most efficient time has passed. Anderson added that of course, annual forages like pearl and foxtail millet, cane, and sorghum-sudangrass are relatively water efficient and will yield proportionately to the amount of water they actually receive.
“And don't forget small grains like rye, triticale, and oats for fall and spring forage if you have moisture at those times,” said Anderson. “It may not be what you hoped for, but growing forages under limited irrigation will help you make the best out of a bad situation.”